Mexico’s changing faces: the surrealist work of the 40s

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It may be trite to say that Mexico is a country of change, but at the beginning of the twentieth century, it really did have to put up with a lot. World War Two sent a stream of Spanish-speaking European refugees its way, looking for a new home away from the oppression of fascism. Within its own borders, revolution bubbled away under the surface, exploding into the 1910 civil war, and again in various armed conflicts even after the appearance of peace in the form of a constitution in 1917.

The reaction to, or rather celebration of, this constant flux of change came in the form of the infinite bodies of the Mexican surrealist artists. While artists such as Diego Rivera were producing massive socio-realist murals to emblazon public spaces with messages of support for the revolutionary government, surrealism in Mexico went against the expressionist grain to embody everything ‘unembodiable’ about the country’s changing identity.

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Results came in the shape of Gilberto Navarro’s urgently colourful crowds, created out of bulbous circular shapes which defy delineation in their shared torsos, and scrambling disjointed limbs. José Luis Cuevas’ grotesque line drawings, where the bodies are larger than they are tall, and the giant Where-The-Wild-Things-Are-esque proportions of each character, are tragically confined by the limitations of the page. Rafael Coronel’s almost hyper-realist wizened old men look through their mask-like faces at tiny birds and insects, with a similar poignancy and nod to the distortions of ageing as in the more absurd scenes of King Lear. Alfredo Castaneda’s bleak landscapes and domestic spaces are populated by black bearded figures merged in sympathy, or disintegrating through acts of mitosis into multiple replica faces. Like fiction’s magic realism, surrealism’s lack of boundaries allowed Mexico to explore its own anthropology, with variably gruesome, comic and unsettling results.

In viewing Mexican culture as invested with an innate sense of the unreal, or seeing its art as dominated by themes of magic and mysticism, we might risk participation in the unwilling creation of a Mexico that wasn’t fully existent. André Breton, on hopping off a boat on his trip to Mexico, superciliously declared that it was “a surrealist country by nature”. He proceeded to set up an exhibition in Mexico City in 1940 under the general title of Surrealism and persuaded Mexican artists such as Frida Kahlo to show their work alongside his. So began the obsession within the Surrealist movement with the idea of ‘the Americas’, and pre-Columbian, pre-Hispanic artefacts and structures, such as Antonin Artaud’s misguided decision to join the ancient Tarahumara people. Breton’s disembarking in Mexico was the start of a kind of artistic colonisation, as he went with the decided view that he would find all of the visceral primitivism and surreal folklore that he required to complete his own preconceived vision of the city. Kahlo herself felt averse to being viewed through the lens of a movement alien to her own individual identity, as well as her nationality. 

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Despite this, the use of the surreal as an artistic technique, rather than as a sign of conformity to a particular movement, remained a method of exploring identity away from the rigid confines of socio-political doctrine. Mexican female artists in particular wielded the brush when all else failed them such as their marriages and their mental health in particular, with striking surrealistic results. While Breton patronisingly summed up Kahlo as “a ribbon around a bomb”, she actively evaded this objectification through her self-portraiture, stating, “Really I do not know whether my paintings are surrealist or not, but I do know that they are the frankest expression of myself.” The contemporary disregard for female reality is addressed in the witty commentary on expectations of beauty in the work of Remedios Varo, in the cosmic significance of the domestic in Leonora Carrington or in Kati Horna’s focus on dismembered female body parts in her surreal photography.

The changing faces of Mexico during this period of unrest can be seen reflected in these similarly disparate works. In its resistance to being homogenised into a singular body, the Mexican surreal refuses clear definition in the same way as the country that produced it. 

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